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How Much Do Photographers Make?

Very few people find themselves considering a career path without taking it’s earning potential into account. Sure, there are other considerations one needs to take when choosing a career, like job satisfaction, educational requirements, physical demands, and industry demand, but the potential income in the field you’re considering plays a huge part in dictating whether it’s all worth it.

Most industries have a relatively standardized range when it comes to income. You may find yourself anywhere within said range but at least there’s a reference level and a range to land on. This isn’t even close to being the case when it comes to the photo industry, so if you’re planning on starting your own photography business, read on to get an estimate on the amount of money you could possibly earn as a photographer.

According to Salary.com, the average annual salary for a photographer is about $60,000, but that number doesn’t really tell you how much a photographer can make. The truth is that very few photographers are salaried employees, and that the cash flow for a freelance photographer can and will fluctuate, especially when one is getting started.

Asking how much photographers make is like asking how to bake a cake. There are plenty of potential correct answers and many more that are wrong, but using the best carrot cake recipe will never produce an appealing cheesecake.

Photographers are, generally, a mixed breed. We have tons of interests, but we’ve usually whittled it down to a specialty, based on either what we’re good at or what we have proven to be the most successful at, given our style. Each of these specialties comes with a unique set of skills, challenges, and deliverables, all of which dictate how much one can charge for them.

As with any business, there are plenty of overhead costs that go along with producing viable income via photography. Most photographers who are just getting started don’t consider these costs while pricing their photography. No photographer, regardless of niche or billing structure, is pocketing every dollar that they charge. In fact, most are pocketing much less than you think. There are several ways to make money as a photographer:

  • Assignment Photography – Wedding Photography, Event Photography, and Sports Photography are just a few niches that fall into this category. The photographers in this niche are hired to be on location and utilize their expertise to document an event or an occasion.
  • Studio Photography – Fashion and Portrait photographers lead this pack, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all of Studio Photography. Newborn photographers and Food/Still-life photographers are also included here. These photographers often start off renting studios on a per-use basis but eventually end up opening and equipping their own.
  • Stock Photography – An often overlooked breed of photographers. Stock Photography has always been widely used in publications, but with the advent of the internet, Stock Photography is now found everywhere. With sites like Shutterstock making it almost too easy to sell your imagery, many photographers have turned to Stock Photography as a viable means of funding their projects.
  • Fine Art Photography – Probably one of the hardest photo industries to succeed in. Fine art photographers generally make money from selling their work to art collectors and very few can get to that level without dabbling in other facets of photography to pay the bills.

Generally speaking, there is no set amount of money/income that photographers make. A steady paycheck can only be expected by salaried photographers, and while they do exist, they are not nearly as prevalent as self-employed or freelance photographers. This means that occasionally you might find yourself with almost too much work or, adversely, the occasional drought.

In order to understand how much money photographers make, you’ll need to understand photography pricing.

Assignment Photography

Most assignment photographers bill for their time by the day or the hour. In this respect, they can be some of the easiest to work with, but they may also seem like they’re overcharging a client to somebody who isn’t familiar with the industry and with the costs that go along with completing a job. However, if you take a look at the deliverables and the services provided, assignment photographers are not pocketing as much as one might think.

Most wedding photographers offer packages. These packages include their shooting time and may also include ancillary services like multiple shooters, video, proofing, or printing. Packages can range anywhere from $1500 to $10,000 and scale from there, depending on photographer’s experience, client needs, and the location of the wedding. Pricing can vary drastically depending on the local market of the job.

Pricing in event & sports photography is much more straightforward. Many of the photographers in this niche charge hourly for their services and, unlike wedding photographers, can find themselves working every day. Depending on experience and the difficulty of the assignment, these photographers generally charge $50 – $300 an hour.

This does not mean, however, that an event photographer cannot charge per assignment. Not all events are created equal, and thus, sometimes a two-hour concert event may be more challenging than 8 hours of convention coverage. It is up to the photographer to determine how much work will go into capturing the event properly.

Many event photographers also charge for usage rights, as their work often finds itself used for promotion and/or publication. These rates vary and sometimes require renewal, depending on the initial usage agreement.

Much of the overhead in event/sports photography lies within equipment purchases. Many event photographers will shoot with multiple cameras at a time and have a veritable army of lenses, as they are often faced with split-second decisions due to the fast-paced nature of this kind of photography and must be equipped to handle anything thrown at them.

Studio Photography

Studio Photography jobs come in all shapes and sizes, and so does their pricing. What differentiates the pricing of studio photography from other niches is often the studio itself. The overhead associated with owning a studio is much different than that of location photography and thus requires different consideration when baking that into the price of a shoot.

Shoot production, assistant wages, and editing are some of the costs associated with studio shoots. As with all photography projects, the job does not end simply because you’ve stopped taking pictures. Many additional hours of work will be invested in post-production and studio/equipment maintenance.

Studio owners can also make a substantial amount of money simply by owning a great studio and renting it to other photographers. Studio rental can be a reliable stream of income and can keep the stress at bay when having a slow month. Having a studio worth renting, however, requires a fair amount of startup cost which should be taken into account when creating a pricing model.

Fashion photographers tend to have day rates and charge (on average) around $300 – $5000 a day. These day rates can be higher or lower, depending on the photographer’s skills and experience, and on the magnitude of the project at hand. Some fashion photographers can also find themselves in salaried positions as many fashion brands and stores employ staff photographers to continually photograph products. Salaried fashion photographers can make as high as $75,000 a year. However, the average salary is around $50,000.

Portrait photographers often charge per hour, per session, or per image, depending on their situation. These session prices are usually based on an hourly rate and the deliverables provided.  Sessions can cost $200 – $3000, depending on the photographer’s skills and experience, and on the deliverables. Cost per photograph typically ranges between $75 and $200. Some niches of portrait photography, like newborn photography, warrant the sale of packages tailored to clients’ needs. These clients often want printed photos and albums.  Printing and material costs are to be considered when pricing the job.

Fashion photographers tend to have day rates and charge (on average) around $300 – $5000 a day. These day rates can be higher or lower, depending on the photographer’s skills and experience, and on the magnitude of the project at hand. Some fashion photographers can also find themselves in salaried positions as many fashion brands and stores employ staff photographers to continually photograph products. Salaried fashion photographers can make as high as $75,000 a year. However, the average salary is around $50,000.

Portrait photographers often charge per hour, per session, or per image, depending on their situation. These session prices are usually based on an hourly rate and the deliverables provided.  Sessions can cost $200 – $3000, depending on the photographer’s skills and experience, and on the deliverables. Cost per photograph typically ranges between $75 and $200. Some niches of portrait photography, like newborn photography, warrant the sale of packages tailored to clients’ needs. These clients often want printed photos and albums.  Printing and material costs are to be considered when pricing the job.

Stock Photography

Stock photography used to be much more lucrative than it is today. With digital photography technology and the internet making it increasingly simple to create and distribute high-quality imagery, the industry has become highly saturated. That’s not to say you can’t make money doing this, it is simply difficult.

Many photographers use the stock industry as an ancillary source of income, using images that they happen to shoot on assignment or on their free time. However, being a full-time stock photographer can be a time-consuming endeavor, depending on what kind of images you produce.

The kind of licensing involved with the purchase of imagery will be the determining factor of the income amount you can produce. Some stock sites will offer royalty-free imagery for a one-time purchasing fee, while others offer full exclusive rights for a higher price.

On average, in today’s version of the stock image market, most photographers see about $1-$2 per image per month. This makes portfolio size an important part of making money as a stock photographer.

Fine Art Photography

Stock photography used to be much more lucrative than it is today. With digital photography technology and the internet making it increasingly simple to create and distribute high-quality imagery, the industry has become highly saturated. That’s not to say you can’t make money doing this, it is simply difficult.

Many photographers use the stock industry as an ancillary source of income, using images that they happen to shoot on assignment or on their free time. However, being a full-time stock photographer can be a time-consuming endeavor, depending on what kind of images you produce.

The kind of licensing involved with the purchase of imagery will be the determining factor of the income amount you can produce. Some stock sites will offer royalty-free imagery for a one-time purchasing fee, while others offer full exclusive rights for a higher price.

On average, in today’s version of the stock image market, most photographers see about $1-$2 per image per month. This makes portfolio size an important part of making money as a stock photographer.

Fine Art Photography

Fine art photography is the great white whale of the photo industry. Being a fine art photographer requires extreme tenacity and dedication, as it is one of the hardest niches to break into. Also, most fine art photographers make money off their work only once a project is complete, and fine art projects can sometimes take up to or more than a decade to finish.

Prints are the fine art photographer’s bread and butter – their primary source of income.

Selling prints can be done online, but since much of it is done through galleries, these photographers need to align themselves well within the fine art community to ensure that they get the necessary exposure to make sales.

The most expensive photograph ever sold was sold for $6.5 million, but that is, obviously, quite rare.   Most prints, for the average photographer, will sell for around $250 – $2000. Top tier fine artists with a great reputation and years of photography under their belts can price imagery from anywhere from $5000 to $40,000.

Prints can gain or lose value depending on factors like size, type of print (digital, darkroom, alternative process, etc.), edition size, and framing. Sometimes something as simple as an artist signature on a print can add value to it, if the photographer is well known.

Needless to say, fine art photography isn’t for everybody. While it can be a fulfilling endeavor, it is not nearly as reliable or consistent as other paths one may take. It is because of this that many fine artists find themselves working in other fields or teaching while trying to make a name for themselves.

Where do you fit?

Deciding where you fit in the photo industry depends on your interests and your skill set. It is rare for photographers to succeed in niches that they don’t enjoy or are ill-equipped for. Pricing your work, once you’ve picked a niche, is not a simple task.

The amount you charge for your work needs to take into account every aspect of your business, not just the time you spend on a job. If you have a solid business plan, you should already have a pretty concise breakdown of your costs of doing business. Pricing your work and your time needs to be done in a way that ensures that you not only hit your bottom line, but also manage to actually make some profit.

Figuring out your bottom line.

To determine your pricing model, you need to take a look at your business plan and decide how much monthly overhead you have. Take a look at:

Transportation costs: You’ll want to figure out how much it costs (on average) for you to get to and from a gig. Factor in auto insurance, maintenance, and car payments (if you have them.)

Costs of owning a business: If you rent an office or a studio you’ll need to account for rent and utilities. If you have insurance and legal costs, throw that into the mix.

Marketing and branding costs: Getting yourself out there costs money. The cost of running ads in print or on Google/social media varies per photographer. Do some homework and figure out where you think you’ll land here. Factor in the costs of creating/maintaining a website and all of the printed marketing materials you have, as well as their cost and the cost to replenish your supply.

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